Saron talks to Madison Kanna, Senior Software Engineer, Health and Wellness at Walmart. Saron talks to Madison about finding the inspiration to transition from being a model to becoming a skilled developer. Madison talks about the experiences, challenges, and moments that sparked her interest in development. Listeners will gain insights into the tools and resources she utilized to hone her coding skills when first embarking on this new path. Madison also highlights the importance of seeking mentorship and how mentorship can open doors to exciting opportunities.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about going from homeschooling to modeling to tech with Madison Kanna, Senior Software Engineer at Health & Wellness at Walmart.
[00:00:21] MK: In my time of need, when I was laid off, I just had overwhelming like hundreds of people reached out to me, like thousands of comments of, “Oh, I was in your club three years ago,” or, “Oh, I’ve seen you from this blog post that you read and come interview here.” Like, it was so, so grateful that all of the people wanted to help me. I felt like so many people had my back and it was just so wonderful.
[00:00:44] SY: In this episode, Madison shares what inspired her to go from model to developer, the skills she needed to hone in on when she first started her coding journey, and the importance of seeking mentorship in your early roles after this.
[00:01:02] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:01:04] MK: Yeah, I’m so excited. Longtime listener, first time caller.
[00:01:08] SY: First time caller, I love that. So you had a whole life before you focused on coding, starting from when you were younger and you were actually homeschooled, which I find very interesting. I find the whole homeschooling conversation a very fascinating one. Tell us about what that was like.
[00:01:27] MK: Yeah. So my parents decided before I was born, along with my older sister and my younger sister, so I’m the middle of three girls, and they decided to homeschool us and I had a great experience. Everyone’s experience is different, but we grew up and I think most people, when they hear that you were homeschooled, they think that you were just like sitting in a kitchen with your mom, like reading out of a textbook and you like never go outside. But from my experience, it was not like that at all. So we went to a charter school where you have state-credentialed teachers. So I had a math tutor, I had a science tutor. They would come to the house and basically tutor you at home as well as the charter school had once a week classes. So it was kind of like the original hybrid model. You would go to class once a week with other homeschoolers and then you would also work from home. So it was kind of a blend of things, but I thought it was a great experience.
[00:02:15] SY: That’s cool.
[00:02:16] MK: Yeah, I feel super lucky that I was homeschooled.
[00:02:19] SY: What made it so great? What would you say is the biggest advantage to being homeschooled?
[00:02:23] MK: Yeah. I actually think when you’re homeschooled, you have more of a childhood. I see now with cousins’ kids or friends’ kids where we just have so much homework and kids are so stressed out with extracurriculars and trying to get into a good college, and it’s kind of like starting from a really young age, these standardized tests and things like that. And I honestly think I just had more free time to explore my curiosities and my interests, and I just got to play and have a little bit more fun, to be honest. And I just think that that’s how I would want it to be for my kids as well.
[00:02:59] SY: And what kind of curiosities did you have? What did you explore?
[00:03:02] MK: Yeah. Well, my parents, we didn’t really have a set curriculum. So normally in school, you’re like, “This is what we’re going to learn about this year,” and you have certain tests and things. But my curriculum was much more open-ended. So I remember one year when I was eight or nine, I was obsessed with dinosaurs and I read everything I could about them and I wanted to go to dinosaur museums. I learned how to draw pictures of dinosaurs, like really well at the time, probably you’ve lost that skill now. But I remember, normally in school, you learn something for maybe three weeks and then you move on, right? You learn something and then you need to go to the next subject, but my family and my tutors kind of said, “Well, if you’re curious about this, then you can explore it for longer.” So you could do something for an extended amount of time. So I spent five months learning about dinosaurs every single day, and I feel like I was really allowed to dive really deep into a curiosity that I had. Yeah, I feel grateful for that today because I remember when I got into coding and I just felt like I can do this again, I can dive really deep into it and immerse myself into it. And yeah, it was just a lot of fun to not feel forced to move to subject to subject. If you really are interested in one thing, then you can go deep and explore it.
[00:04:16] SY: That’s really cool. So was the goal after homeschooling to go to college or was there a different plan for you?
[00:04:23] MK: My parents generally wanted me to go to college, but it wasn’t, “You must go.” I did end up going to college pretty briefly. I wasn’t there for very long.
[00:04:32] SY: What did you study?
[00:04:33] MK: Actually the first year I went, I was pretty undeclared, I tried general classes like your first year, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study yet. And so I ultimately decided to take a break once I’d been there for about a year.
[00:04:48] SY: What led to that break?
[00:04:50] MK: I felt like I wasn’t learning any real world skills when I was in college, and I know everyone’s experience is different, but I didn’t feel like I was learning valuable skills at the time. And I remember I was spending a bunch of money to attend and I just felt like, you know, when you’re 18 years old and you’re kind of going through the motions, and I felt like I wanted to take a pause and actually figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And I thought to myself, “If I do figure out I want to do something that requires a degree, I can always go back.” Right?
[00:05:19] SY: That’s true.
[00:05:19] MK: I didn’t want to just kind of passively sit there for four years. And I saw people who were older than me. They were graduating with hundreds of thousand dollars in debt and not being able to pay off that debt because the degree did not get them a good job. And I know I’m not special. I knew that would happen to me too. So I figured I’m going to pause college for a while, figure out what I can do, what I want to do with my life, and then I can always go back.
[00:05:43] SY: And what did you figure out with your time off?
[00:05:45] ML: Yeah. Well, at the time I really was just working, I was signed with a modeling agency and so I left college and I did that for about nine months. Everyone in my life was very unhappy with me when I did this, even my homeschooling parents, as supportive as they are of different ways of getting an education, telling your family, “I’m going to drop out of college,” basically was not well great received. They eventually supported me, of course. And then at the time, for anyone who’s listening maybe who dropped out of college or paused, you definitely get some looks from people in your life. I remember my ex-boyfriend at the time telling him I’m going to leave school and he basically was like, “You’re never going to be successful.” Like, “Without a degree you’ll be basically a loser for your whole life.” And so yeah, I felt very lost, but I felt like internally something was saying, “Okay, maybe I just need to pause and figure out what I want to do.” And so I did modeling for a while, realized for various reasons that that was not at all what I wanted to do long term. And I just realized I really want a valuable skill in this economy. I want a skill that’s going to be rewarded that I can really use, and then eventually found coding.
[00:06:55] SY: Interesting. So between modeling and coding, was there an intermediate career or other things that you explored or did you go straight from photoshoots to the keyboard?
[00:07:08] MK: Yeah, I actually went straight from photoshoots to coding. So I went and visited my older sister in San Francisco in between modeling shoots and she was working as a programmer, and that’s how I got into it. But I do remember I started looking at coding and I was working at my agency and I was there and I was on my computer learning how to code and I told someone, “Well, I left college and now I’m doing this modeling thing and I’m going to learn how to code.” And he was like, “Aha! That’s so funny.” Like, “That’s ridiculous.” I just remember thinking like, yeah, I felt very lost at that time and very confused, but I just felt like I had a big chip on my shoulder dropping out of college. I really wanted to prove that I could get a great career and that I could become a programmer. It was super important to me.
[00:07:50] SY: Were you trying to prove that you could be successful without college? Or at the time when you decided that you were going to look into coding, did you think maybe I should go back to school for this?
[00:08:03] MK: I did consider like maybe I will go back to school. It definitely was on my mind, but I had heard so many people saying, “If you study hard enough, you don’t need a degree to program.” And I didn’t really want to go back to school to be honest. I was hoping I didn’t have to because I was homeschooled growing up, and I met a lot of people who told me when I was homeschooled, they said, “When you finally go to college, you’ll see what this real educational institution is like and kind of where the real learning happens.” [00:08:30] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:08:30] MK: But when I didn’t go to school…
[00:08:32] SY: A little presumptuous.
[00:08:33] MK: Yeah. When you’re homeschooled, a lot of people are like, “This is the real education.” But college, when I went, I felt like I wasn’t learning because there’s a focus not on learning, but a focus on getting good grades and like learning things and getting good grades are like two completely different things. They’re two completely different goals, in my opinion.
[00:08:53] SY: And when you were coding, did it feel more like the learning you were used to with your homeschooling background?
[00:09:00] MK: Yeah, absolutely. Because I never went to a coding bootcamp or anything like that. And so when I started learning how to code everything felt free of tests, well, besides LeetCode watch, I suppose it’s a terrible test.
[00:09:12] SY: A one big test.
[00:09:13] MK: One big, terrible test.
[00:09:14] SY: One forever test. Yeah.
[00:09:16] MK: Yeah, repeated my whole life. But yeah, I felt like it was completely different than I guess the rigid structure of school. I just felt like I had a lot more freedom to build fun projects that I liked and explore different areas of programming.
[00:09:31] SY: What was it like to make the transition from photoshoots, which I’m assuming it’s a very physical activity? You’re using your body, you have certain angles, and you’re getting your face done up. It feels very physical, and then going to a laptop where you’re sitting still for so long, you’re barely moving, and you’re just kind of like thinking really hard. How was that transition like for you?
[00:09:55] MK: It was extremely hard because I remember I went and I would try to sit down and lock myself in my room and say, “I’m going to study. I’m going to program for an hour.” And I remember sitting there and like five minutes later, I was like, itching to check my phone or look at Twitter at the time. And it was really hard. I just realized that I wasn’t used to really studying at that point after being out of college for a while. And I wasn’t really used to focusing so hard, and I see a lot of people struggle with that, especially when they’re learning how to code. Just learning how to code seems so much about learning how to focus.
[00:10:31] SY: Interesting. Learning how to focus. How did you end up building that skill, that muscle?
[00:10:35] MK: Yeah. Well, I feel like I’m a broken record because everyone who knows me, I talk about this book way too much, but I read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport that I’m completely obsessed with. And I know a lot of people have read it, and you read a book and you’re like, “Yeah, I should probably do that.” But I really committed to all of the rules he had in his book. I even deleted social media for a while, which is kind of regrettable then to build back all your followers. But yeah, I basically followed a bunch of the rules in that book. One of them is definitely having study blocks where you’re only studying and you can’t check any sort of social media. Another rule he has that I think is one of the hardest ones to do is he talks about how most people, they say, “Okay, I’m going to be focused for an hour or two.” Right? And so I’m going to take a focus block in my day. And he says you should actually focus on internet blocks. So you like wake up, you plan your week and you say, “I’m going to study at these hours.” And then you say, “I’ll pick five blocks in my day, like five 15 minute blocks, and I will check my phone and social media and I’ll check my texts in those blocks.” And then the rest of your day, you don’t check it at all. Because the idea is if you’re trying to study and your brain gets bored, you immediately reach for your phone and you’re basically teaching your brain, it can never be bored. You’re teaching your brain it doesn’t have to focus because at a moment’s notice, you can grab your phone and check the news stimuli.
[00:11:57] SY: Interesting. Yeah.
[00:11:59] MK: So anyways, a bunch of rules like that, I regarded them as my Bible. And I still really try to follow those. I fall off the wagon quite a lot because it’s tricky. But yeah.
[00:12:09] SY: What was it about coding that excited you, that attracted you to it?
[00:12:13] MK: Yeah, I remember I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do because I realized that modeling is, you have a very short shelf life. And if you don’t make it by you’re in your later 20s, then you’re considered old. And so I just realized I wanted to build some sort of valuable skill, but I wanted it to be something I was passionate about too. Right? So I went to visit my big sister Randall in San Francisco, and I remember walking in and sitting with the programmers and seeing code on the screen that just looked like this language that I could not read at all. And they were building this music application at the time and I just thought it was so magical that they were building something from scratch and that millions of people were going to use this application. I thought it was so exciting and then realizing that anyone could do it. Anyone can open their computer and if you have enough grit, you can learn how to code. So I love that it was so accessible to anyone from any different backgrounds who could learn this skill. I really like that too.
[00:13:12] SY: So you saw this skill, this magic power it feels like, and it’s exciting. You want in on it. What did you do? Did you quit your model career and go to Codecademy or what was kind of the first step in that?
[00:13:25] MK: Yeah. So I think the first thing I did was I just asked my sister, because she had been through a coding bootcamp. And she had gotten this job in San Francisco. So I talked to her about how do I do this? And then I absolutely immediately quit my modeling job because I really wanted to focus on this. I basically ended up moving back home, locked myself in my room for about a year, lived with my parents because I really didn’t have much money at that time and just started building projects and trying to figure out how I could eventually get a developer job. That was kind of the path, move back home, try to lock myself in my room, get focused and eventually get a job.
[00:14:04] SY: A year can feel like a long time. I think in reality it’s actually not that bad, but it can feel like a long time when you’re embarking on a new adventure without someone telling you what to do, right? Because you’re not in a bootcamp, you’re not in school. You have to determine every single day, “What do I work on? How do I approach my learning?” So how did you approach that? How did you approach a 12-month timeline and figure out how to best utilize your time?
[00:14:29] MK: I think in terms of utilizing your time and thinking about, “I have this whole year,” I think the hardest part of it all was I had this goal, right off I want to become a developer, but I don’t know. It just seemed so far away. Right? And I think people who are learning how to code, you’re just learning the basics at first. And you’re like, “Okay, I want to learn this and get a job by this timeline. But then your goal seems so far away from where you are. And I had this vision of myself getting my first developer job, and no one else really saw that vision but me, right? Like you’re living at home, dropped out of college, and I’m telling my friends, “Oh, I’m going to become a programmer and I’m going to get a really high paid job and I know I can do this.” And everyone’s kind of like, “Okay.” [00:15:10] SY: Yeah, “Sure.”
[00:15:12] MK: Yeah. Like, “Great! Good for you!” And you’re living at home, coding in the basement. But I’d say overall, I guess to answer the point of your question, in terms of utilizing my time and that timeline, I just kept putting in the work and telling myself like, “I will get there.” And so I felt like I had to have this unshakable belief in myself that I could do it, even though it sounded a little crazy at the time for anyone else who heard me say that. So I just had to really have that like core belief and then focusing on, yeah, I treated it like a full-time job, so tried to program and study every day and take off weekends.
[00:15:47] SY: So you said that you had to have this unshakable belief in yourself, but I’m wondering, were there any moments throughout that year where your belief did shake?
[00:15:57] MK: Yeah, several times, definitely, just getting stuck on really hard concepts, and I chose not to go to a coding bootcamp at the time. To be honest, I looked at them and I thought they all just seemed really expensive. And so I figured if I try really hard, I can learn some of this stuff on my own and with free online resources. But I definitely remember there was a time when I was just coding and I ended up going to my parents and my sisters and just crying and telling them like, “I feel like I’m going nowhere in my life and I feel like this stuff seems to come easily for other people, but I feel like it’s really hard for me.” At the time, you think you’re so old, even though I was very, very young back then, but I was like, “Oh my God! Everyone else seems to be cruising along on their path.” And I felt, yeah, just very lost. I remember that night and my family just said, “You can do it. Just keep going.” And I really appreciate that now.
[00:16:48] SY: What helped pick you back up in those moments?
[00:16:51] MK: Definitely just family. Just having a really solid family in place is just my safe place, my happy place, like home is my favorite place in the entire world. My family was just so supportive of me, even though they really didn’t want me to drop out of college. And yeah, just having their support and my older sister too, calling her and just being like, “Programming is so hard. I’m so lost and confused.” And her just saying, “No, you can do it. You can do it.” Just keep working and helping me.
[00:17:20] SY: Getting into kind of the practical side of those 12 months, how did you pick what to learn? How’d you pick what language? What framework? What tools to level up on? How’d you make those decisions?
[00:17:32] MK: Yes. First, I kind of looked at… I mean, there’s so many different programming languages, right? And there’s so many different fields. And I think if you’re a beginner, it can be really overwhelming because I remember I was looking and you’re reading about Python and data science, and then you’re learning about systems programming or web development, app development, and there’s so many things and you’re thinking, “Okay, I want to pick one of these, but how do I do it exactly?” And for me, I remember I tried out different things, like data science was quite hot at the time. And so I was taking a data science course, I was taking web development course, I was looking at Python, and I just remember. I wanted to stick with something that I liked. So I tried different things and I tried to think about what was actually sticking. So I took a web development course and it was a full stack course, and I really enjoyed it and I kept thinking about it even when I went looking at iOS development and other things. And so I just figured out what is actually interesting to me enough to keep going. And so that kind of gave me a clue about what I should focus on.
[00:18:56] SY: So you plan to give yourself a year to kind of figure it out and get that first job. How long did it end up taking before you got your first paid gig in the coding world?
[00:19:07] MK: Yeah, it took a year and I guess three months.
[00:19:11] SY: Okay. Not bad. Not far off from what your goal was, which is great. How did you get that first job?
[00:19:16] MK: I basically created my first job. I kept hearing about how developers with no experience have a really hard time getting a job. There’s not that many entry level jobs. And I kept hearing like the catch 22 of like, if you want to get a job, you need experience, but you need experience to get the job. And so it’s like, “What are you going to do?” [00:19:35] SY: Right.
[00:19:36] MK: And so I read this book at the time by Charlie Hoehn, and it was called the Recession Proof Graduate, and he basically talks about this strategy of pitching yourself as an intern for a few months. And so TLDR, I essentially took that strategy and I emailed a few startups that I researched and I thought were interesting, and I emailed them and I essentially said, “I’m looking for an internship,” like, “I really want mentorship. I want real world experience. Would you possibly take me on? Here are the projects that I’ve built, take me on for two months, and if I’m working well with the team and I’m doing good work, then hire me after that for this amount we can talk about. And if not, then the internship ends.” And so I emailed, I think, three to five companies and a couple of them got back to me and I ended up going from there, working for one of the startups.
[00:20:25] SY: Wow! So that is both very creative and also a little controversial because there’s a lot of pushback around working for free and valuing your time and not doing free labor and there’s all these conversations around that. And so I’m wondering where did that kind of factor in? How did it feel to do two months of essentially free labor in the hopes that maybe someone will give you a chance? How did you think about those?
[00:20:51] MK: Yeah. I know it is very controversial. And I never tell people, “Oh, go work for free.” I would never say that. For me, I looked at it as what I really wanted was some real world experience, and honestly, at that point I really wanted mentorship. Like I realized that I wanted to have some sort of mentor and have more feedback on my code because I knew that I’d become a better programmer. So I looked at it as if I could be an apprentice for someone where I trade my time and then they mentor me, and it’s built in where I have a mentor. So I decided to look at it like that. They’re trading their time to teach me because, honestly, newer developers were not very productive for the first several months, in my opinion. It’s hard to get productive. And so I viewed it as I’m going to trade my time here. And in return, I’ll gained some mentorship for a few months.
[00:21:40] SY: And when you joined the team, how did it feel? Do you remember what that first day, that first time? Was it in the office? Was it in a physical office?
[00:21:50] MK: It was actually remote.
[00:21:51] SY: It was remote. Oh, wow!
[00:21:52] MK: From day one.
[00:21:53] SY: So what was that like for you?
[00:21:55] MK: It was incredibly exciting and also very scary. I remember I got on Slack and they kind of gave me a ticket to work on. But then I remember Devin, the CTO, he told me like from the first day, he was like, “We’ll meet up at this time later and we’ll have an hour to be pair programming.” And I was just so excited because I was thinking, “Oh my gosh!” Like, “I have my older sister to pair program with me, but no one else really a pair program with besides maybe peers.” And so yeah, he just went out of his way every single day to teach me. So it felt incredible.
[00:22:26] SY: What do you think it was about you, about the email that you sent these companies that made them get back to you and that made one of them take you up on your offer?
[00:22:37] MK: I think I was very scrappy and I said in my emails that I did want to become a developer and I wanted experience, but I also said, if you do take me on and hire me and pay me, then I won’t just be a developer. I will get things done. Right? Because at these smaller startups, you really need to keep things moving, keep the ball rolling. And so they want people that are hungry and eager to get things done, not people who are so rigid in their roles of, “I’m a programmer and I’m only going to program.” So I kind of pitched myself as I will be an intern and get things done that needed to be done, even the unsexy things that maybe other people don’t want to do, like doing a little bit of customer support, doing technical support, things that maybe other developers with more experience, they don’t want to be doing those things. But I pitched myself as, “I’m really eager to get in with a great team somewhere, I really want to learn and I’m willing to get it done, whatever it is.” And then ultimately, I did do a few different things in my internship that weren’t programming related, but pretty quickly I was programming and paid full-time.
[00:23:42] SY: So when you think about what the job of being a developer ended up being like compared to what you expected it to be like in your head, how did those two compare?
[00:23:53] MK: I think in my head, I expected it to be you’re like not speaking to anyone. You’re programming in a hoodie in a basement at like 2:00 AM.
[00:24:01] SY: Yeah, that’s what I do.
[00:24:04] MK: So it’s exactly the same. I love that. I mean, that’s definitely me sometimes, eating a burrito.
[00:24:11] SY: Yeah.
[00:24:12] MK: But I think there’s a lot more communication of all. I think it’s also a lot more creative than I thought because I thought coding was so similar to mathematics, especially when I was in college. I was like, “Oh, coding is similar to math,” and there’s kind of one right answer, but everyone has their own coding style. And so it’s a little bit more creative than I thought it would be.
[00:24:31] SY: I was very surprised when I learned how to code, how much it felt like just writing in a different language. It felt like storytelling, especially web development. I was coding in Ruby on Rails, and it just felt like I go here and then I go over here and then I do this thing and then I do this other thing. I’m just telling a story. I’m giving directions. I’m telling a story of how to navigate the page and how to build a button and how to create a form and how to pass data. And it just felt so much more like storytelling than I ever expected. And I thought it would be more, I guess, mathematical, more engineer-y, but it just felt like different kinds of writing. You know?
[00:25:11] MK: I love that. I could totally see that.
[00:25:14] SY: So looking back at your experience as an intern and then that launching your career as a developer, if you could go back and do it over again, would you have done the two months’ work for free, get the experience and then move into a job? Is that strategy something that you would repeat if you had the opportunity?
[00:25:32] MK: That’s a great question. I think I would just because, I mean, I got lucky with the company too. The mentorship was incredible. Like every single day, having a CTO, someone who had decades of experience just helping me code, I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten that necessarily in a different place. So I think I would go back and do it, or at least if not that, then something else, right? Like figuring out how can I work on a real world project? Maybe you’re just building a project with your friends. Maybe you volunteered to build a project for a nonprofit. I know a lot of people do that, but going back and getting some sort of experience more quickly.
[00:26:09] SY: Absolutely. So after your internship, you got hired at the company as a full-time developer. How long did you end up staying there?
[00:26:17] MK: You know, I only ended up staying there six or seven more months because once I had experience, I actually had people on LinkedIn like reaching out to me like, and it’s funny.
[00:26:26] SY: Oh wow! That’s fun!
[00:26:28] MK: Yeah. But before, when you have no professional experience, it’s like crickets. And you’re just like desperate. You’re like, “Please hire me.” [00:26:32] SY: Yeah, just begging for attention. Yeah.
[00:26:36] MK: “Please, someone.” Like, “I’ll do anything,” like the desperate emails and hitting up people. But then I really noticed after like you have six or seven months of real experience, things really do change. Even with just a bit of experience, it gets so much easier. And so if someone’s listening and they’re really struggling, like once you get that first professional experience, it does get easier once you have something on your resume from my experience. But I remember someone recruited me and then they just… to be totally honest, they gave me like a much higher salary and I was just like, “Oh, yes.” Like, “Yup, I'm going to go for that.” [00:27:05] SY: Oh, hell yeah.
[00:27:06] MK: But I kind of regretted leaving because then I went to my new job and I thought mentorship at that level was normal. I thought, “Oh, someone’s going to be pair programming with me every day.” And I realized that that was actually really unique to that first company. They had an incredible developer, like still a friend of mine today, who wanted to help me out. So my next job was great, but way less handholding, much more like you’re a paid developer now, go complete this ticket. And so I didn’t realize how good I had it with that great me mentorship until I had much less mentorship.
[00:27:37] SY: And now you are a senior software engineer at Walmart, which is amazing. And that chip on your shoulder, you’ve proved everyone wrong. You don’t need a college degree to be successful, and you’re living proof of that. How did you end up in this position?
[00:27:51] MK: About 10 months ago now, I was laid off. So the tech layoffs that have been happening all throughout this year, 2023, they were like just at the start. And so sometimes I say I was lucky because I was laid off earlier than a lot of people were. But I was in a previous job at a real estate tech company and I was laid off. I’ve never been laid off before. They laid off like 70% of the team.
[00:28:13] SY: Oh my goodness!
[00:28:14] MK: I remember I took vacation about 10 months ago and I never take vacation. I took off vacation to go to Disneyland with my sisters, my brother-in-law, and I hadn’t taken off that much time in like two years because I’m always, “Got to work, got to work.” So I took vacation, went to Disneyland, got COVID, felt terrible, came back to work and I opened up my computer first day back and they were like, “You’re laid off.” And the computer both blacked and my computer gets bricked and I’m just sitting there like feeling just awful. Like, “What am I going to do? How am I going to pay rent?” But long story short, I ended up tweeting out that I was laid off and I’ve been really active on Twitter and I have this CodeBookClub I’ve been running for years. And I tweeted out that I was laid off. And so many people, like hundreds of people DMed me and one of them was about this opportunity at the Health & Wellness team. And so I ended up getting this new job from Twitter. It’s much more money than I was making before. I love my team. I have a lot more responsibilities and working as a senior engineer as well now for the first time. So it ended up being kind of a blessing in disguise.
[00:29:17] SY: So you went from software engineer to senior engineer. What was the biggest difference between those titles?
[00:29:25] MK: Yeah. There’s been a ton of differences. The biggest difference is I have to have a bigger picture of the project and basically take more ownership over projects. So now if a project is coming in, I’m doing things like creating tickets and figuring out the timeline of the project, and I’m working more with product and it’s kind of like owning like a mini application within the company, like a feature that you’re building and then maybe helping others, mentoring others. Whereas before, I was much more just coding things. I wasn’t as focused on the big picture of the future and are we getting it out.
[00:30:02] SY: That makes a lot of sense. Yup. And how long did the unemployment period last for you, between the time you got laid off to actually getting the job? How much time it passed?
[00:30:12] MK: It was just about a month. I was really thankful for my community, for all the people that sent me job referrals. It was actually incredibly overwhelming and I feel so grateful for everyone. So grateful for everyone, but I just got so many offers to interview at different places. And once, I did about a month and I was going to keep interviewing, but I got a little burnt out from interviewing, I have to say. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to practice an interview every day and I don’t want to let anyone down.” But it’s really tiring.
[00:30:39] SY: It’s exhausting. Putting on a show, practicing your technical interview skills. It’s a whole thing. Yeah, especially those back to back interviews, that last hours can be absolutely draining. Absolutely draining. Yeah.
[00:30:54] MK: Yeah.
[00:31:00] SY: Coming up next, Madison talks about starting her community book club back in 2019 and where you can sign up after this.
[00:31:20] SY: Well, a month is pretty short. That sounds a pretty short amount of time to be unemployed. Congratulations to you on being able to close that gap so quickly. What do you attribute that to? You mentioned that you were active on Twitter. You have a really solid Twitter community. And I’m wondering for folks who might be worried about layoffs or might have been laid off and they’re trying to close that gap, make that window of unemployment as small as possible, what are some things that you did that you think contributed to that happening for you?
[00:31:45] MK: I think the biggest thing I’ve done for years, what I’ve really tried to do is I’ve tried to just give back to the community and I’ve tried to help people. So one thing I started in end of 2019 was a book club because as a developer, you always got to keep learning, fortunately or unfortunately, depending how you look at it.
[00:32:04] SY: Depending on who you ask.
[00:32:05] MK: Yeah, depending on…
[00:32:06] SY: Depending on your mood for the day. Yeah.
[00:32:07] MK: Yeah. So sometimes it’s great. But I started this free book club where I said, “Anyone can come and learn with me every Sunday.” And it’s literally been for three and a half years now, every single Sunday at 2:00 PM on Zoom. And sometimes we’ll do, like over the years we did LeetCodes, right? Where I’d be like, “Let’s practice LeetCode together.” And I would always be tweeting about it over the years, and slowly people would find me like over time. And so I gained all of my follower. I mean, I have about 40,000 followers and I gained most of them just from people finding the club and being like, “Oh, this is a cool place.” Like, “We all need to learn, so LeetCode sucks, but we got to practice. So let’s do it together.” And we’ve read a bunch of books over time. I think we’ve read about 11 books in the last three and a half years.
[00:32:46] SY: Wow!
[00:32:46] MK: Like 11 programming books. But to the point of your question, I think I just tried to focus on like giving and helping other people and then in my time of need, when I was laid off, I wasn’t sure what to do and everyone said, “Well, you should do a layoff tweet.” And so I kind of tweeted out, which felt very embarrassing at the time, right? I felt very humbled to say, “I was laid off, guys.” I’ve never in my life like asked and anyone on Twitter to say, “I need something from,” I was just trying to focus on my club and trying to give. And so I just had overwhelming, like my DMs to this day, hundreds of people reached out to me, like thousands of comments of, “Oh, I was in your club three years ago,” or, “Oh, I’ve seen you from this blog post that you read. Come interview here.” It was so, so grateful that all of the people wanted to help me. And so long story short, I think what really helped me was just kind of accidentally creating this network of people who were just my friends and my peers from my book club or knew me from that book club. And then I just had so many opportunities from people who were like, “Hey, we have a position. I can’t guarantee, but come interview.” And I feel so grateful to all of them. And so I felt so glad that I had been doing that all along because when I needed help in return, I felt like so many people had my back and tried to help me out, and it was just so wonderful.
[00:34:05] SY: That is beautiful. I love this idea of just making it a priority to just give and give back. And you weren’t necessarily looking for something in return, but when your moment came where you needed someone to give to you, tons of people showed up and they showed up for you. That reminds me of, I don’t know if you know the book Givers and Takers, I think it’s by Adam Grant, one of my favorite books. But the short version is there’s givers and there’s takers, and most people are kind of halfway in between. They give, but they’re kind of keep and score. They give, but they expect to take later on. Some people are just givers without any calculation, without any expectation of return. And then there are takers who just take, take, take and give nothing. And the key question of the book is, “Who gets ahead in life?” Like, “Who’s successful? Is it the givers, the takers?” Or I think the matchers is the one that kind of does a little bit of both. And the question is also, “Who is most behind?” So who’s ahead? Who’s behind? And the answer to both those questions is the givers. Because the givers, earlier in their careers, usually it’s like career oriented, right? So earlier in their careers, they give, give, give. They aren’t getting anything. So they’re behind. They’re behind the takers. They’re behind the matchers. But over time, that giving really adds back. And because a lot of people feel indebted and just want to pull their weight and want to contribute as well, they end up being on the receiving end later on in their careers and in their lives. So it feels like you’re a giver. It sounds like you’ve been giving and giving for years, and when it was your turn, people really gave back to you.
[00:35:38] MK: Thank you. Wow! I have to read that book. It sounds incredible.
[00:35:41] SY: It’s great. I love that book.
[00:35:42] MK: I didn’t even realize I was doing that. But yeah, that is so true, right? Like you see someone that your favorite YouTuber or like the author of that book, and they’ve added so much value to your life that if they ever needed a favor, like in a heartbeat… [00:35:54] SY: You’re there. You’re there.
[00:35:55] MK: Yeah, exactly.
[00:35:56] SY: Yup. Yeah. So I wanted to dig into this book club because I don’t know if you know this, but I ran a book club. I had a book club podcast actually for a couple of years with my best friend Nadia. We had. It was called the Ruby Book Club Podcast, and we read a Ruby book and we discussed it on the podcast and we did an episode every week for, I can’t remember how long we did it for, but it was quite some time. And so when I heard that you also ran a book club, I was like, “Oh my God! That’s great.” I know exactly what that’s like. Where did that idea even come from to run not just run a book club, but to run a public book club where anybody can join you?
[00:37:23] MK: They just both felt like it was maybe too much at the time. And so I remember like, “Okay, wait, I need people in my book club. It’s just me.” And so I tweeted about it and I just said, “If anyone wants to do this with me, I’m going to do this.” And I had a bunch of people like, “Oh yeah, I also am trying to learn on the weekends and I don’t feel like I have much of a community. I want to keep learning.” So it kind of accidentally became kind of a public book club.
[00:37:48] SY: And what was the name of that book? Do you remember?
[00:37:50] MK: Yeah, we started with You Don’t Know JS, the series.
[00:37:52] SY: Yeah.
[00:37:52] MK: So there’s like, gosh, four or five. And I was like, “I’m going to read them all.” But luckily because of the club and because when you’re the host of a book club or when you’re committed to a book club, you have to keep showing up because you’re the host. Right?
[00:38:04] SY: Yup. You’re the host. Yup.
[00:38:06] MK: Every Sunday at 2:00 PM. You wake up and you’re like, “I just want to like go lay around today and relax, go on a walk.” But like, “Oh, no, I have this accountability, I have this thing I’m hosting.” So it’s really helped my learning a lot over time.
[00:38:20] SY: Why books? Why not coding tutorials or open source projects or videos? Why did you pick reading books as the thing you were going to commit to?
[00:38:30] MK: That’s a great question. So it started with books because I just love reading. I love books and whenever I learn something new, I always want to get a book on it. I just love opening up the fresh smell of a new book. And that’s kind of why it started, just because I learned so much through reading and the exercises in programming books. Lately though, a lot of people ask that same question, like, “Why just books? That can take a long time.” And so now we’ve branched out quite a lot. Like last year we just did, I think we did like six months of, we went through like 50 LeetCode questions and then every week we would tackle a question as a group and then we would go on to the next question or we’d break up and people would pair together and then come back to the main Zoom call. So we’ve kind of started with books because I love them and now we’ve moved to different formats.
[00:39:30] MK: I think I always wanted to be a good developer and that was the main motivation. I just think there’s something really beautiful about just being good at a skill and doing it well. And so I’m always trying to just work towards that. Obviously, I never feel like I’m quite there. But yeah, I think I just felt like I want to get more competency in this.
[00:39:50] SY: And for other people figuring out what continuous learning looks like for them, do you recommend books as the right format for people? Or how do they kind of pick what’s the best way for them to regularly stay up to speed and level up their skills?
[00:40:07] MK: Whatever gets you most excited. I think if you aren’t much of a book person, then you don’t have to read one. Just skip them. But I think, yeah, whatever gets you most excited. Maybe it’s just building a silly little project. Maybe it’s watching like your favorite YouTuber. I’ve definitely had moments still where I was doing the club, but I got a little burnt out and then saw something on YouTube and that got me excited to code. So I guess just figuring out what excites you the most. And I try to never view it as a chore, right? Because I think if you start to view continues learning as a chore, then you start to get burnt out and you don’t want to do it anymore.
[00:40:42] SY: Absolutely. Well, you have come very, very far in your career. So I’m sure there are plenty of people listening, trying to figure out what is the best path for them. And they’re coming from careers that are totally unrelated to tech. Maybe it’s modeling. Maybe it’s teaching elementary school, maybe it’s something totally different and they’re trying to go on that journey. Maybe they haven’t quite taken that first step and they’re debating whether they should go down the path less traveled, similar to what you did when you went off modeling and decided to learn to code. What advice would you have for them as they think about starting a journey that might feel a little intimidating?
[00:41:21] MK: I’d say you absolutely can do it. You just have to work hard and have grit, and you will absolutely get there. And I think my other piece of advice is just make sure that you have great support system. Probably remove the dream killers in your life and make sure you have someone really supporting you and believing in you because I think that can make a world of difference. And also listen to podcasts like this because back forever ago when I got started, in college, it really, at the time, it was so much about, okay, this is the person that’s been coding for forever, getting the traditional degree and then hearing episodes on the CodeNewbie, and I realized that there’s so many people from different backgrounds that broke in, and it definitely gave me a lot of confidence to say, “I can come into this as well.” [00:42:08] SY: Remove the dream killers. I feel like that is the perfect takeaway for this episode. Remove them. Get rid of them. You don’t need them. There’s no space for you here. And keep the people around who are going to support your dream. I think that’s a great way to conclude. Now at the end of our episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Madison, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:42:35] MK: Yes, absolutely.
[00:42:36] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:42:40] MK: Probably stay in college.
[00:42:42] SY: Yeah.
[00:42:44] MK: So that sounds so controversial to say, but yeah.
[00:42:47] SY: And do you feel like there are scenarios where that actually is the right advice? Or do you feel like that general way of thinking is problematic?
[00:42:57] MK: That’s a great question. I think there’s definitely scenarios when it’s the right advice, “Stay in college, you’re on the right path and you got to keep going.” And I think it’s just different for everyone. But I don’t like that. I guess there’s the defaults of like, “You must have a degree. You must go today.” Because I think there’s just other ways that people can go about life and I hope to see more and more just different educational paths for people.
[00:43:18] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:43:22] MK: Whenever I’m upset about something or when something bad is happening, my parents will say, “Work the problem. Just work the problem.”
[00:43:29] SY: Oh, what does that mean?
[00:43:31] MK: It just means like go tackle the problem. When you’re getting upset and you’re kind of freaking out over something happening, work the problem. Figure the problem out. And I think that can definitely apply to coding or life. You go get in there, you try to figure out the problem, keep going.
[00:43:46] SY: I love that. So productive. So go-getter. I love that. Just work the problem. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:43:56] MK: It was a checker’s game, but half worked.
[00:43:58] SY: Checker. Half worked. I like that. Not quite forward. Half worked. Fair enough. Fair enough. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:44:11] MK: I wish I knew how to focus better. I really struggled with that and I thought it would make me a bad developer. Right? I thought like, “Oh, I’m not good enough for this,” and once I kind of fixed my focus, coding got a lot easier.
[00:44:24] SY: Very nice. Well, thank you again so much for joining us, Madison.
[00:44:27] MK: Thank you so much. This was wonderful.
[00:44:33] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, email@example.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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